Today's commentary by Dr Andrew Kania is poignant and moving. It may lead you to coming to fresh insights into the meaning of the stories of Peter, and Jesus. It's a reflection on the questioning Jesus subjected Peter to. Are we subjected to similar questions in our lives? In today's email I have also recommended you invest the time to spend with this reflection and with the equally confronting issues I have raised from an entirely different direction in today's email. ...Brian Coyne (Editor)
A reflection on Christ's questioning of Peter...
One can only imagine how St. Peter felt after he ran from the look of Christ; having just denied Him three times. The echo of the cock crowing would have played as much on his conscience as it would have done in his aural memory. Each time that he closed his eyes in order to forget the scene — the face of a tortured and bloodied Christ would have been frozen in his mind's eye; in similar fashion to how a person who is stunned by a bright light, when they then close their eyes — can see the negative image of the light for minutes afterward.
Yet with Peter — it was not simple light that he had seen, and turned away from; It was the Light that had come into the world to dispel all darkness (cf. John 1: 4-5). As he ran to safety, Peter would have sobbed inconsolably. His throat would have been hoarse with grief. He may have even been nauseous; he may have fallen to the ground; he may have laid in his wife's embrace — like a child weeping at her breast. He may have thought as the hours passed by, that yes he would give himself up to Pilate as the friend of the Nazarene; but as the hours ticked on — and as the news was slowly filtering back of the death-sentence and the dreadful means of execution, any courage that the first Head of the Church had, would have dissipated, in the same fashion of the running of sand in the hour glass, that seems to speed up as it reaches the final grains. Then he would have sat — dark rings under his blood-shot eyes; by an open window; until the sky turned awkwardly dark in the late afternoon; he would have known that this cosmic event heralded the forthcoming death of the man that he had proclaimed: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16: 16, RSV). He had walked across the water with this Man that he had denied — he had shared the last hours of this Man's legal freedom; and now the Man that he had told: "If I must die with you, I will not deny you" was now dying a gruesome death — all but alone (Mark 14: 31, RSV).
In fact the only disciple who had the courage to stand by Christ — even to the last, was a mere boy — John. And this man called Peter — a known firebrand, a man who had spoken so zealously — now cowered, like a child on hearing the first roars of thunder.
No consolation offered by the greatest of Biblical spouses could have lifted Peter from out of his grief. Like Jacob being told of the death of Joseph — Peter would have been looking into Sheol with his thoughts. When a man is so grieved — he is truly alone — and he is truly the loneliest man in the world; and Peter, who had betrayed the greatest man who had ever lived — would become like Judas Iscariot, on that very day — a partnership of the loneliest men who had ever taken a breath in history (cf. Genesis 37: 35). The great sin of Judas, however, was not that he betrayed Christ — for that Peter had done as well — but that Judas had lost all hope in the mercy of God; something that Peter, had not done.
So as Peter tore at his breast — and prayed that some miracle may occur that he could be awoken from this garish nightmare; in his heart, what prevented him from turning deep grief into utter despair was a belief, that the man that he had so loved — could forgive him, even if it meant from the grave. For this Christ, if He was the Son of God — He was also that God who had forgiven David for his unfaithfulness; and Jonah for his recalcitrance; and with the Incarnation He had forgiven the parent's of humanity for their deception. Such a God — could even forgive him; this was the God of Peter — but it was not the God that Judas Iscariot had chosen for himself.
The Resurrection of Christ, the most awesome event in history accompanies in the Gospel of St. John — the spiritual resurrection of St. Peter. As St. John tells us:
"When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' He said to him, 'Feed my lambs.' A second time he said to him, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' He said to him, 'Tend my sheep.' He said to him the third time, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?' Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, 'Do you love me?' And he said to him, 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my sheep.'" (John 21: 15 — 17, RSV)
When we read this text, we see a beautiful interplay between a Man who has been glorified after much physical suffering and death; and a man who has attempted to save his life, and in the process nearly destroyed his soul. Christ eats with his friend Peter — and after sharing the meal of a friend; restores his self-respect and his spirit, by invoking that most powerful of Godly gifts — love. To lead His Church, Christ asks whether Peter not only loves Him — but whether he loves Him more than all the others; for only the man who loves more than anyone else, is worthy of taking possession of the Bride — the Church. The tripartite questioning is symbolic — for in the three questions that are asked — lies a penitential act — each subsequent affirmation of love, erasing each previous denial on Holy Thursday. But there is also a deeper reading to this passage — a reading that is only unlocked when one studies the original text — in the Greek language. A much richer story lies beneath the limited gloss of the English translation.
The richer sub-text behind the literal English translation...
The English language although rich in scope, provides us with only one word for love. The Greek language — the language of the New Testament gives us four words: These four types of love are: eros, or sexual love; philio, the love which exists between friends; storge, the love between family members; and agape, unconditional love. So what exactly was being said between Christ and Peter?
In John 21: 15, Christ asks: "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?". In this passage the love that Christ speaks of, is 'agape' — in essence he asks of Peter, whether the love he bears for Him is not only greater than the others, but whether this greatness of love is unconditional. This is an enormous question: do you not only love me more — but do you love me beyond the depth and breadth of infinity? Peter's response indicates the limitations of his humanity: "He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." (John 21: 15, RSV) The love that Peter responds to Christ with is 'philio'; he loves Christ — but not unconditionally; he has lied to Christ once about the extent of his love for Him — he cannot do so again.
The Peter we see is a humbled man — a man of broken and contrite spirit (cf. Psalm 51: 17). But Christ does not reject Peter's love, even though it falls short of His question: "He said to him, "Feed my lambs." (John 21: 15, RSV).
The second time Christ questions Peter again using 'agape': "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" (John 21: 16, RSV). Once again Peter responds with 'philio'; and once again Christ affirms the extent of Peter's commitment: "Tend my sheep" (John 21: 16, RSV). It is evident that Christ would rather have a man love Him honestly — but to a limited extent; than promise much, but deliver nought (cf. Matthew 26: 33 — 35).
The final time that Christ questions Peter — there is an added reason as to why Peter cries — for it is not only the reminder of the triple denial, but the question that Christ poses is now significantly altered: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" (John 21: 17, RSV). In the English language there is nothing odd — but in the Greek the question is vastly different. Christ is no longer asking Peter for the 'agape' love — he reaches out to Peter in the only way that Peter is capable; he asks Peter if he loves 'philio'. Peter would have understood the importance of the difference in the questioning. He cries not only because he has been questioned a third time — but also because in asking the question differently — Peter has an understanding that his love is limited and is not as great as He that is asking. Peter can only reciprocate fully the love that Christ offers, by giving up his life; for he is a man — and his friend is God, and the greatest possession that Peter has to bargain with, is his life; but he cannot yet do this – he is unready. Therefore Peter counters: "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." (John 21: 17, RSV). Peter responds using 'philio', and for Christ, this admitted weakness from a man who is desperate to love Him, with a human heart – containing all its intricate failings, is enough. "Feed my sheep." (John 21: 17, RSV). We have here in the Greek original – the very essence of Christ the good and gentle shepherd: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (cf. Matthew 11: 29 – 30). Christ will not force Peter to love him any more than Peter believes he can; but if Peter desires it so — then he will learn to love fully – each step of the journey in following Christ.
In the original Greek then, it becomes clear why after the interchange between Christ and Peter, Christ then intimates not in a glaring or confronting fashion, but in the manner of instruction, how Peter would eventually die:"'Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.' (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, 'Follow me.'" (John 21: 18 – 19, RSV)
Christ accepted Peter's love from where he was — at that moment – but He also challenged Peter to grow in fullness for the future. Thus in the death of Peter in Rome, would come the eventual answer that Christ first requested of him: do you love me Peter — even if everything you possessed and everything you are was to be given up for my sake? On the day of his martyrdom — Peter gave his answer, not in words, that can be misinterpreted, mistranslated and thus mistaken, but through stark action. In this Peter revealed a love for Christ that was: 'agape'. The process for Peter of self-realisation — was now completed; he had become better than his word had been on Holy Thursday; thus revealing that Christ will always meet us at the point where we are; but similarly He takes us from this point to a place far beyond where we first thought we were ever capable of Being.
And for those, of whom there would be some, who would say that the Evangelist John only used the two different Greek verbs for 'love' as a stylistic tool; they forget that the Saint who penned the Gospel, was also the man who sat at the foot of the angel; and decided carefully upon the importance of each word that he included and excluded (cf. Revelation 22: 18 – 19). For to paint too great a portrait of perfection in Peter is in fact totake away from God the great miracle that He wrought, by making a very fallible, and in the truest sense of the word, a pathetic man, a great Saint and the first Pope (cf. Mark 8: 32 – 33). Such an interpretation of John 21: 15-17, does not lead to minimalism; what it does confirm is the Parable of the Talents — Christ will judge according to what measure Providence has given, and what we do with these Talents (cf. Matthew 25: 14 – 30).
©2009 Dr Andrew Thomas Kania